“We’ve all heard that the unexamined life is not worth living, but consider too that the unlived life is not worth examining.”
― Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way
I’ve always known I wanted to be a writer. But it took me forty years to finally become one.
It started in primary school, when my mother, who was also my teacher, commended me on my literary compositions (reminding me, at the same time, that I lacked the skills for numbers, equations and extractions).
I was too young too understand why my mother never offered praise freely. Why when she encouraged me about my skill with words, I was also to be made aware of the areas that I still needed to work on. I didn’t realise that her critique was a reflection of her internal battle. That her marriage to an abusive, violent, alcoholic husband had to be overcompensated by turning me into the perfect student. Maybe her suffering was worth it if I, the fruit of that unfortunate union, turned out to be the best pupil she ever schooled.
I experienced my first writer’s block episode while I was still in primary school. I had the idea for a detective story that took place in the classroom and it was the first time I ever got the spark to write something that wasn’t a school assignment, but was purely out of joy and fun. Obviously I hadn’t worked out the plot, but I had made the start with the inciting incident: the disappearance of the classroom cupboard lock. When my mother found the pages, she told me very gently that if I were to read them later, I would be embarrassed of their quality.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King shares the story of when he suffered from writer’s block. Whilst in college, he decided not to present his new novel Sword in the Darkness to the class, which led to a four-month period of not writing, drinking beer, and watching soap operas. Unlike Stephen King, it took me more than twenty-four years to have a stab at creative writing again.
The creative writing side of my brain entered shut down mode the day my mother critiqued my school detective story, but I was still perfectly capable to write school assignments or articles for the school paper. Maybe I wasn’t writing for the pleasure of creating anymore, but I could at least stave off the hunger of my soul by, say, becoming a journalist, but in the end I even failed at that. I joined the Communication Sciences department instead of the School of Journalism, followed by a career in advertising (not as a copywriter, but as an account manager) and a Master’s degree in Public Relations. I was moving further and further down on the creativity scale.
‘If you want to work on your art, work on your life,’ said the famous Russian writer Anton Chekov. It became clear to me that the two are intrinsically linked when I found myself at 33 years old, living in London, working in one of the largest advertising agencies in the world, splurging my youth in bars and pubs and smelly dungeons and waking up more and more miserable every day.
At first I thought it was because I was single. I had not been in a proper relationship for almost seven years and I worried something was wrong with me.
I thought I had identified my problem when I realised how desperately I wanted to be somebody’s someone and kickstarted a one-year quest for love. As a project manager, I came up with the idea to employ the same planning tools I used at work to improve my chances in love. I called it The Love Project and took myself on a dating journey until, a few months later, I found myself exhausted and not an inch closer to being in a relationship. That was the moment when I was actually getting closer to the problem. What if what I’d been missing all this time was not another person, but myself?
I didn’t even know how blocked I was until Julia Cameron came into my life.
A work-colleague recommended her book: The Artist’s Way. ‘I think you will benefit from doing the course,’ she said and I listened. It wasn’t like I had much choice. I had exhausted all the bright ideas of fixing the constant hum of lack in my life so I started a new project: the artist recovery. I read the chapters and did the exercises (the morning pages and the artist dates) until one day I had a moment of crisis. A kryia.
Kryia is a Sanskrit word Julia Cameron describes as spiritual seizure or surrender. ‘We all know what a kryia looks like’ she says, ‘it is the bad case of the flu right after you’ve broken up with your lover.’ It’s the moment when you’re so down that the only way is up, when something dramatic and profound takes place inside of you. The only way to move forward from the kryia is as a completely changed person. I was still fixated on my love project, but suddenly I knew that I might never find love and that it was okay. But maybe I could find my creativity again.
A month after I officially abandoned The Love Project, I met Alistair. We moved in four months later and, fast forward two more years, we got married. By then, I had written a book about my year of searching for love and had invested time, effort and money to get it developed and edited professionally. I was ready to hit the world with my creative genius.
When I started to get rejection after rejection from literary agents, doubt creeped in again. My relationship, like any relationship, was not the perfect smooth ride I visualised and neither was my writing journey. But instead of taking both as normal stages of the process, I wondered if maybe my mother had been right. I wasn’t a proper writer.
Well-meaning friends reminded me that J.K. Rowling got rejected 12 times by publishers, before Harry Potter became a cultural phenomenon. I also found out that Margaret Mitchell received 38 rejections before Gone With The Wind was published. “An absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull,” stated the rejection letter sent to William Golding for The Lord Of The Flies. Kathryn Stockett’s The Help was rejected 60 times, before the 61st accepted her and sold her manuscript to Amy Einhorn Books. 5 London publishers turned it down, before it finally found a home and Life of Pi by Yann Martel went on to win The Man Booker Prize in 2002.
These fascinating statistics were supposed to make me feel better, but I found little solace in them. ‘You just have to keep trying and believe in yourself,’ the same well-meaning friends insisted but their positive mantras fell on deaf ears. The problem I had was not the people rejecting my work, just like the problem I had during my single days was not the men I was dating. The problem was of my own doing.
I wouldn’t have minded being rejected, you see, if I still believed in my book. It wasn’t the polite responses saying the style, story or genre was not right for their list at that moment in time, but the fact that I had written a book about finding a husband in the 21st century, when having a husband is no longer an economical and societal necessity, and I wasn’t even sure I was doing it right. I had written a book about finding a husband because I didn’t think I was good a good enough woman without one.
My mother didn’t feel good enough for someone better than my father. She suffered though his verbal and physical abuse and eventually lost her mind and ended up in a psychiatric hospital, while I was still a child. Finding marital bliss, I thought, would vindicate my mother, but did I have the right to jinx my chances by flaunting my personal achievements to the world?
While I was receiving rejections from agents, my marriage was undergoing its natural cycle of highs and lows. Two previous strangers, now partnered for life, danced a tango of give and take, of acceptance and rejection, of frustration and bliss, learning about each other and ourselves as a pair, but all I could see was the fact that I was failing at love. How could I tell the world my story when I was constantly swimming to keep my head above the water in my marriage? What if, like the little detective story I set out to write over twenty five years ago, the book was just a load of embarrassing bollocks that I was better off to scrunch up and shove into my pocket?
In 1991, Time magazine published an article titled ‘The 30-Year Writer’s Block’, referring to Harold Brodkey, the acclaimed New Yorker short story writer, who was finally seeing the publication of his first novel, after it has first been announced in the early 1960s. He had literally spent three decades struggling to finish his book. Rhoda Koenig wrote in New York magazine, referring to Ernest Hemingway’s many posthumous publications, that Brodkey alive was less prolific than Hemingway dead. The book was so painfully awaited that some critics felt bad about criticising it, to the point that Newsweek wrote: ‘The Runaway Soul is absolutely the last book you want to say this about, but it could have used a rewrite.’
Channelling my inner Harold Brodkey, I was doing revisions after revisions, six years after I’d first announced my book to my followers and have even given talks and interviews about it. I carried on editing and polishing with the same industry I applied to my marriage. Eventually even my well-meaning friends have stopped asking me about ‘the book’.
Without noticing, I was becoming blocked again, but not in the same way as before. I was writing and rewriting, I was just too afraid to share it with the world.
David Foster Wallace, for instance, wasn’t blocked per se. On the contrary, he wrote to Jonathan Franzen that he had ‘many many pages written.’ But finishing is just as necessary as starting, and in his final years Wallace seemed unable to make his mountains of material and research converge into a narrative.
‘Writer’s block is a load of nonsense—I’ve always been a bit suspicious of it. It’s more likely to be a symptom of depression or maybe they’ve just got nothing interesting to say,’ declared prolific Alexander McCall Smith, author of the No. 1 Women Detective Agency, in an interview with the Daily Mail. As if to prove his point, David Foster Wallace killed himself at 46 after struggling with depression for many years.
I didn’t think I was depressed, but maybe it was true that I had nothing interesting to say. It certainly felt that way. My few remaining well-meaning friends insisted that I saw my own book’s value, but I was convinced by then that the world of publishing and entertainment had been saturated by stories of dating and romance. Sex and The City did it twenty years before and it did it better. It had humour, emotion, sex, quirky dialogue and an impressive wardrobe. If I could fault it for anything, perhaps it lacked reality (anybody knows that you cannot afford your own flat in Greenwich Village from writing a sex column, no matter how popular). What I wanted to tell the world was that single life in a big city like London was gritty and sometimes dirty and joyless. Glimpses of the feminism I was so fiercely trying to portray in The Love Project, despite that, at a first glance, the book seemed to suggest I was promoting Victorian ideals, were visible in brutally honest shows like Lena Duham’s Girls, but I was too obsessed with my inability of being a good wife to see that maybe there was still scope for my work in the world.
Maybe it wasn’t that I had too little to say, but maybe that I had too much. And while working out whether I could still be the feminist I promised myself to be (a decision that I took during one of the many long nights I spent whimpering, watching my mother being humiliated and abused) and stop arguing with my husband at every step, trying to be a woman and a man at the same time, trying to prove myself stronger than my mother, the world was becoming ready for my story. Fleabag’s critical acclaim opened the door for complicated women, while the recent Amazon Prime mini-series Modern Love, an adaptation of the eponymous popular column from The New Yorker, had me crying to bits and not because of the romance, but because of the tear-jerking honest moments, when the girl who’s always tried to hide her mental illness finally reveals to a friend that she is bipolar, or the couple who admit the faults of their relationship over dinner, after deciding to call it quits.
With the point of the book I wrote finally revealed to me, I sent it back into the world. Two weeks later I had an agent.
When I shared the good news with the people in my life, they congratulated me for believing in my work and not giving up. But I haven’t always believed in my work. That’s the interesting part. To keep pushing yourself even when you don’t want to. Even when everything in your bones is telling you to stop, to protect yourself from the judgement of the world (a world that now contains your husband), to stay small and safe, something despite yourself keeps pushing you forward. The story just wanted to be told and it wanted to be told by me. And this is all the credit I can take.
I am definitely not Hemingway and I most likely will never win The Booker Prize. I considered myself lucky if only 5 publishers rejected my book. (Update: Despite initial interest, The Love Project has been rejected by all the publishers it has been sent to and I have since parted ways with my agent. I have finally decided giving self-publishing a go). But I have made it this far despite being plagued by doubts every step of the way. I’ve made it with the realisation that not even a happy marriage will ever come close to vindicating my mother. But maybe being a stubborn writer will.
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